Masturbation is understood to be the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” The deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside of marriage is, according to the teaching of the Church, contrary to its primary purpose of procreation and unification of the husband and wife within the sacrament of marriage. In addition, the Church teaches that all other sexual activity—including masturbation, homosexual acts, acts of sodomy, all sex outside of or before marriage (fornication), and the use of any form of contraceptive or birth control is gravely disordered, as it frustrates the natural order, purpose, and ends of sexuality. To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability. Although “it is said that psychology and sociology show that [masturbation] is a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young,” this does not change the fact that it “is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act” and “that, whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes ‘the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.
Like any sexual sin, the Church condemns masturbation because it is a perversion of the sexual act. “Perversion” is a loaded word in today’s society, so let’s unpack it.
I believe it was St. Thomas Aquinas who defined evil as “the absence of a good that ought to be there.” When we take something that is good, and deprive it of some part of its goodness, it becomes less than it is meant to be. Contrary to what is portrayed in the secular media, the Catholic Church thinks sex is extremely good. This high order of goodness is why sexual sins are held to be so grave. The higher the good, the greater the evil when that good is perverted.
Following the natural law, the Church recognizes two primary ends (purposes) of the sexual act. One is obvious — procreation. The other is union between the spouses. Sex should be both a unitive and procreative act, in potential if not in fact. Not every sex act will result in procreation, but intentionally rendering the act sterile is a perversion of the act itself. You are engaging in the act while simultaneously acting against one of the primary purposes of the act. This is what makes contraception a sin.
In the case of masturbation, not only is it a sterile act, but it’s also — by definition — not a unifying act. There is no coming together in mutual love and self-giving. There is no “two become one flesh.” It is a selfish act. This is why the Church considers masturbation sinful.
Now, if you are reading this and you don’t agree with the whole body of Catholic teaching on sexual morality, you may think all of the above is hogwash. Fine. My objective for explaining why the Catholic Church condemns masturbation is to illustrate that it has nothing to do with why the Church condemns abortion.
The reason why the Church holds abortion to be a grave sin is easily explained: intentionally killing an innocent human being is evil. That’s it.
Nothing to do with sex — except that sex is how human beings are created. But that’s beside the point. Abortion is only about sex in that it deals with the consequence of sex. But we are all consequences of sex. And we all have an innate dignity and a right to life. You can’t just kill people when they become an inconvenience for you. That’s psychotic behavior.
We know it is wrong to kill innocent human beings. What abortion advocates must do is obscure the humanity of the unborn. This is what the tactic of equating abortion with masturbation is all about. We know a sperm cell is not a human being. Stunts like this are meant to get us to think the same about a fetus.
We all recognize the humanity of a newborn baby. We cringe at the thought of intentionally killing such a precious, helpless and innocent new life. So what’s the difference between a baby the day after she is born and the day before she is born? Not much, other than location. One day she is in her mother’s womb, receiving nourishment from her mother via the umbilical cord. The next day she is out in the world receiving nourishment from her mother’s breast or a bottle. She really has not changed much. She’s just a little bigger and more developed, which is a process that will continue until adulthood.
Most people are against late-term abortions because the fetus in the late stages of pregnancy physically looks like the newborn baby, whose humanity we recognize. But let’s wind the clock backward.
What’s the difference between a child at 8 months gestation with a child at 7 months gestation? One is just a little bigger and more developed. How about a child at 20 weeks versus a child at 19 weeks? One is just a little bigger and more developed. 18 weeks versus 16 weeks? 10 weeks verses 8 weeks? How far back shall we go? Sure, there is a difference between a 2-week old fetus and a newborn baby, just like there is a difference between a baby, a toddler, and an adolescent. We grow. We develop. It’s what human beings do. But we recognize that the teenager and the 5-year old are the same person at different stages in life. The same is true of the unborn child.
The one point in human development that we can objectively and scientifically point to and say here! This is where something definitive happens and we have something new that was not there before! is conception. A male sperm comes together with a female egg. The DNA of mother and father are combined and suddenly we have a completely new and distinct human being that did not exist a moment ago. The origins of that lanky teenager, that cute toddler, that adorable baby, are right there in that single fertilized cell.
Human life begins with conception. Not with the sperm. Not with the egg. Sperm and eggs are part of the reproductive systems of the mother and father. They are part of a human being. Once conception occurs, the embryo is neither its mother or father, but something distinct. It is not part of a human being, but is a newly created human being. To equate it in dignity with a sperm cell or an unfertilized egg is stupid and demeaning. To put it simply, at one point in time you, like all of us, were a tiny fertilized egg. You are not, and never were, a sperm cell.